Vlad the Impaler – Blood Prince of Wallachia

Evil in Human Form – For over 500 years, people have spoken his name in whispers: Vlad the Impaler.  Price of Wallachia.  Dracula.  The books and movies paint him as a monster, a madman, a destroyer of souls.  The reality is worse.  This d20 system sourcebook tells the real story of Wallachia’s blood prince, with the real Romanian folklore that inspired Bram Stoker.  Add new monsters and prestige classes from the Wallachian setting, plus an adventure featuring Vlad that is compatible with LAST DAYS OF CONSTANTINOPLE.  And it all really happened.

It has been observed that truth is stranger than fiction.  In this offering from Avalanche Press, they seek to give us the ‘real’ Vlad the Impaler – and all that comes with it.  I have to admit that I finally sat down to review this book with a certain amount of excitement.  With vampire (and specifically Dracula) stories having inspired so many fantasy fiction classics, including the original D&D horror setting of Ravenloft and Strahd von Zarovich, I knew that this would be a rich source for gaming inspiration.  At least, if the Avalanche Press mechanics didn’t get in the way.

The book is organized into five parts.  The first two parts provide background information on the real-world setting of Wallachia; the next two parts provide game information, and the final part provides an adventure featuring Vlad the Impaler himself.  Please be warned that spoilers for the adventure are contained later within this review.

The first part is exceedingly short – four pages.The first three pages are about Vlad, and do a good job of providing the known historical information.  While I considered myself to be passing familiar with the true history of Vlad the Impaler, there was still much that surprised me in this small section.  The fourth page discusses impalement (in gruesome detail).  As the introduction states, “we tell our children there are no monsters, but we lie.The monsters are out there, they just wear a human face.”

The second section is the largest, covering nearly half of the book.  This part discusses Wallachia, including the geography, the people, the cultures and the conflicts that define life here.  The historical information is again good, though I do have one complaint.  This section includes not one, but two maps, of the region, which would normally be very helpful.  However, the labeling on the map does not correspond to terms in the book – Wallachia here is referred to as ‘Tera Romanesca’.  The map is labeled as being from the National Archive of Bucharest, which may explain the discrepancy.  Even with perfect vision, I find many of the labels difficult or impossible to read.

As this chapter details the people and places of Wallachia, it should come as no surprise that the noble class (boyar) is described in some detail, as are the elite mounted warriors of the area (hussars).  I mention that specifically because it leads into Part 3 – Characters.  Both the boyar and hussar are presented as prestige classes.  The boyar is a 10-level prestige class featuring a full Base Attack progression and four bonus feats.  Between bonus feats, the boyar gains special abilities related to ‘income’ and ‘overtaxing’.  Essentially, levels in this class allow you to produce income from the peasants you oppress (and trust me, in Wallachia, you oppress the peasants).  To get the most money out of the class, you must have nine levels in the prestige class, requiring that you must be at least 14th level (combining your base class and prestige class).  It is on this ground that I must object.  If you are a 14th level fighter, or a 14th level anything – you can’t gain income by taxing your peasants according to this book.  Only a Boyar can gain money via taxation.  You can’t be ‘born’ a boyar and take classes in anything other than ‘boyar’ if you want to be able to tax your peasants.  While I don’t think it’s necessarily worthwhile to develop a complicated economic system that faithfully emulates a feudal medieval system (but if I did, I could find it in ‘A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe’ by Expeditious Retreat Press), I don’t think that a class feature is the best way to represent an act that literally anyone can do – particularly a well-armed character with a castle and retainers.  Otherwise, it isn’t a bad class – particularly well suited to NPC warriors.

The hussar focuses on mounted combat.  A character considering this class must plan ahead carefully for feat choices.  At 1st and 3rd level it provides specific mounted combat bonus feats (ride-by attack and spirited charge) that a PC focused on mounted combat would otherwise likely have picked up previously.  The non-feat class abilities are not particularly exciting, so even mounted combat focused characters might prefer to steer clear of this class.  I will point out that ‘behead’ is a bonus feat that this class gets at 7th level.  I hope it’s obvious that a feat that allows you to decapitate your enemies is a bad idea.  But if you implement the feat in the game, it could normally be taken as early as character level 4th.  If the feat is allowed, waiting until at least 12th character level is probably also silly – if you’re going to break the game, you might as well do it as soon as possible.

 

This chapter also presents two NPC classes.  One, the herbalist, basically allows a limited number of ‘non-magic’ spell effects to be added to the game, like cure spells.  This class does not appear to offer many advantages over the Adept NPC class, but it may be more appropriate for a lower-magic world.  The other class, the Lautar, is a low-magic bard.  While the class is interesting, it also suffers from poor class design.  The main feature of the class is ‘song of power’.  There are eight songs of power, none of which have prerequisites.  Over the course of 20 levels, you will get all eight songs of power.  As a result, by 8th level you have four Songs of Power, but they’re also the four that you most wanted.  Thus, each time you get the ability after the first time, you’re choosing from powers that you were less and less interested in.  From a player perspective, this is very unsatisfying.  But, since it’s an NPC class anyway, I guess that doesn’t really matter.

Part 4 provides details on three monsters (all of which are forms of undead).  Two of them are ‘vampire-type’ creatures inspired by the real-world myths.  While truth may be stranger than fiction, it is not nearly as exciting.  The true vampire (strigoi) prefers sucking on a new-mother’s teat (which causes her to go dry and her baby to starve) rather than drinking blood.  The other vampire-like creature (the obru) is a feces-flinging shit-eating vampire.  The explanation for why these real-myth creatures exist is interesting, but they make less satisfying villains than traditional D&D vampires.  The stigoi, particularly, seems confusing mechanically.  It has fast healing, but it takes damage if it doesn’t feed.  This damage is not listed as being immune to the fast healing (only fire and stakes through the heart do real damage), but if that were the case, the stigoi would never be subject to the damage, since they’d heal regardless.  The variable damage and healing depending on whether the stigoi feeds on blood or breast-milk is also needlessly confusing.  Long story short, the relationship between damage from hunger and from other sources becomes confusing quickly.

The third and final creature is an undead raven the size of a small dog.  Again, the real-world explanation for the raven instead of the traditional bat we associate with vampires is interesting.  Blood-sucking bats exist in the new world (not yet discovered in Vlad’s time), so fruit- and insect-eating bats do not have the connection to evil that carrion eating ravens do.

This section also has rules for black powder weapons reprinted from Avalanche Press’s ‘Black Flags: Piracy in the Caribbean’.  As is typical for gunpowder weapons in D&D, they offer no advantage compared to a composite longbow capable of firing four or more times per round.  The reload time on the arquebuse is a staggering eight rounds!

The final section of the book provides an adventure featuring a confrontation with Vlad the Impaler.  The adventure covers 18 pages, but as it is designed for 12th level characters, the adventure feels abbreviated.  It reads like a story with a few suggestions here and there for how to run the encounter and important stat blocks.  What it does not have are any tactical maps.  The story-like suggestions are not bad, and can help build an ambience of horror.  The PCs are asked to locate and rescue two papal agents in Wallachia by their Roman Catholic sponsor.  On the way they begin to see firsthand the terrible devastation by Vlad the Impaler.  After passing through a desolate countryside depopulated by wars between the invading Ottomans and Vlad’s forces, the PCs reach Wallachia’s capital.  Once they learn that the Blood Prince is marching north with one of the people they’re looking for, they head out and catch up (after passing numerous impaled people, still waiting to expire).  Once they catch up they’re likely to get in a fight.  What is particularly interesting about the adventure is that it is designed to maintain the mystery of whether Vlad is a vampire or a normal man.  Stats are provided for both options, leaving it up to the DM to decide.  According to the adventure guidelines, if Vlad is a man, the PCs are not supposed to kill him.  But the reasons not to seem very flimsy and easily discarded, besides being unsatisfying (particularly as he is trying to kill the PCs).  While the adventure has some good ideas, any DM basing an adventure on it will need to expound on the general ideas extensively.

All in all, the book offers a decent mix of ideas and a good starting point for a real-world campaign.  But it only offers a starting point.  A DM will need to make extensive modification to ensure the material is balanced and filled out.

 

 

Vlad the Impaler - Blood Prince of Wallachia

Author: Dr. Mike Bennighof, John R. Phythyon Jr.

Publisher: Avalanche Press

Publish Date: 5/2001

ISBN: 097079619-6

Pages: 64

Rating:alt

Retail Price: $16.95